cooking without 고추장

Almost a year ago, when I started cooking more Korean food,  my husband and I came to the decision to stop cooking with 고추장.  It started when I casually glanced at the list of ingredients and noticed the very first one listed was high fructose corn syrup, and that there were several other ingredients whose names I couldn’t even pronounce. What was in our 고추장? What should be in our 고추장??  So I started researching.

I read that sometimes the corn syrup on the English language ingredient list is a mistranslation of rice syrup, which is more commonly used in Korean cooking.  I understand rice syrup because I know that sugar is necessary for fermentation, but I didn’t like the possibility of corn syrup (especially when listed as the first ingredient) or the presence of weird preservatives.

I also learned that although families back in the day had their own recipes for 고추장, these days a good quality 고추장 is generally agreed to contain the following ingredients:

-red pepper powder (고추가루)

-fermented soybean powder (메주가루)

-rice/barley/wheat flour

-rice syrup (쌀엿)



Armed with this information, I asked my husband to check the 고추장 options the next time he went HMart in Atlanta for better quality one that didn’t contain questionable ingredients.  To be honest, I thought he would just shrug off the corn syrup, the preservatives, the unpronounceable ingredients and just say we should go ahead and continue to use it, but he jumped into the project with as much enthusiasm as I did.  He read all the labels, and even the organic and expensive 고추장 did not pass the test.  Some even contained MSG.

Now, obviously there is high-quality 고추장 available for sale in Korea, but it’s very difficult to find good 고추장 in the US, even though many Koreans live here.  So we started thinking about alternatives, and came up with a few options.

1. Spend a small fortune on a small amount of homemade  or “artesinal” 고추장

There is a Korean 아줌마 living in our area who makes her own 된장 from scratch.  This is actually so impressive to me because there are not many Korean people living here.  My mother-in-law started buying from her instead of purchasing mass-produced 된장 a while back, and it is is delicious. It tastes so much better than conventional stuff. She sells it in a huge glass kimchi jar, and it’s too much for my mother-in-law to eat by herself, so she gives us a generous scoop or two whenever we are running low.

This system is great for us, since my husband told me that conventional 된장 contains the same kind of preservatives as 고추장 , so we are very happy to be eating super healthy homemade 된장. This lady also happens to make homemade 고추장. She called my mother-in-law a few weeks ago to try to sell her some, and guess how much she was asking for a quart sized bag full.


EIGHTY DOLLARS?!!! Even if you grow the red peppers yourself, harvest and dry them, and then make the paste from scratch like she apparently does, that $80 price tag is out of control.

Next, we turned to Amazon to see if we could access any of these high quality 고추장, but all we could find were a few “artesinal” 고추장 options. True, these had a much shorter list of high quality ingredients, but their price ranges from $13 to $30 for a 7 ounce container, and that is just crazily expensive as well.

So we quickly tossed those options by the wayside.

2. Make our own

Maangchi has a great article about how to make 고추장 from scratch, which you can read here. If you had any thoughts that it’s a simple, hands-off process, this will illustrate just how involved it is at every step of the way. I had neither the time, the space, nor the patience to delve into the world of homemade 고추장 and so that was simply out of the question.

As a side note, this article has a great picture of homemade 고추장 vs store-bought and there is a huge difference in the texture and color. It’s so interesting.

3. 고추가루

At this point, it was clear that our only recourse, other than just give in to the super-processed 고추장 available to us was to make substitutions, and the only possible substitution is a combination of 고추가루 and soy sauce.

So when we cook a dish that calls for 고추장, we simply dump a load of 고추가루 and some spoons of soy sauce in there until the dish has a desired level of spiciness. We will sometimes have to add extra garlic or onions or mashed green apple (which we use as a substitute for sugar or honey) to add some more robust flavor to the dish to make up for what we’ve taken away by removing the 고추장, but it seems to work pretty well.

We’ve been cooking with a combination of equal parts soy sauce and 고추가루, and less of garlic and black pepper. For example, today we made a big batch of 체육볶음 with 3 spoons 고추가루, 3 spoons soy sauce, 2 heaping spoons minced garlic (다진마늘), one spoon of 참기름, 1 minced Granny Smith apple, and a generous amount of black pepper (to take away the pork smell).

 photo 20160612_122312_zpsqbwhp5bw.jpg

And it was delicious.

Unless we are able to find a good AND REASONABLY PRICED brand of 고추장, I think this is how we will cook from now on. It’s an easy and cost-effective alternative, it’s just as tasty as if we had used 고추장, and most importantly we aren’t putting weird things into our bodies.

If you have any suggestion for healthier 고추장 that won’t cost an arm and a leg, please let me know! I’m always looking for alternatives~



I fell in love with 단무지 in 2011. At first I was afraid to eat it because what was it? So bright yellow and weird looking. But I was in Korea for the first time, and I’d spent all of my money to get there, so I was determined to be open to all the new experiences. From the first tangy bite, I realized that not only was it much tastier than it looked, but that I really liked it. A few weeks later I discovered that it is infinitely more delicious when paired with Korean Chinese dishes. 짜장면 and 단무지 really should get married, don’t you think?

A few years later, my husband told me that conventional 단무지 like the one I had fallen for actually contains a lot of bad ingredients (MSG, saccharine) and preservatives. He also shared several horror stories about how it is produced and what may or may not go on behind the scenes, and from that day I knew that I could never buy 단무지 again. This was very disappointing news. How could I make 김밥 without 단무지??? I was sad for a long time, even though I’ve never made 김밥 before (It was always so nice to have the option, right?).

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when my husband brought some big 무 home from a trip to Atlanta and a lightbulb clicked on in the air above my head. If I wanted 단무지 so much, why didn’t I just MAKE IT?? And so that’s what I did.

Luckily, it is so easy to make, contains only a handful of ingredients, and pickles very quickly. I left it sitting out overnight to expedite the pickling process, and then set the container in the refrigerator for about 20 hours, and when I decided to check in on it, it was ready to eat!

I used this recipe (minus the peppercorns and 치자) and it turned out splendidly. Thanks to the turmeric, the color was almost exactly like store-bought 단무지 and the taste was great. Clean and refreshing.

My husband was almost as impressed with me as I was (I was VERY impressed with myself) and he ended up eating so many of them. It made me happy to see him eating MY 단무지, and I felt so proud of myself for having successfully learned this new recipe. And now that I know how to make a healthy 단무지, I can make a healthy 김밥 too!

NEVER EVER in all of my life did I imagine I’d find so much pleasure making pickled radish in my kitchen on a Friday night, and I love it.

korean mom cooking, week 3

I’m back with another round up of my Korean mom cooking challenge.  This week, I really didn’t want to do any cooking. I spent most of Sunday doing…other things, and when my husband came home from his day trip to Atlanta, he was like, “Wait, you didn’t cook yet?” and shook his head and rolled up his sleeves. He helped me knock out this week’s meals with some ingredients he’d bought at H-Mart. God I miss H-Mart.

What I made this week:

♡ green curry
♡ baby bok choy
♡ stir fry medley of yellow squash, onions, and mushrooms
♡ 동그랑땡 (leftover)
♡배추 겉절이 (leftover)

♡ Recipe source♡ 

The recipe for green curry basically involved us emptying the contents of our vegetable drawer into a pot and mixing with chicken and coconut milk and this curry paste. It’s a super-easy dish to prepare, and it is especially useful because you can get so many servings from a single batch. And we just stir fried the vegetables the same way we always do, with lots of garlic and olive oil. I don’t really like yellow squash much–it’s too transparent and floppy when you cook it–but the mushrooms were so good. I don’t remember what they’re called, but we can only get them at H-Mart, and they are so meaty and delicious.

♡ Favorite side dish ♡

This week it was the green curry. It’s so satisfying.  My husband loves the bok choy, but he couldn’t eat it because it got stuck in his braces. Can’t wait till he gets those removed.

♡ Final Thoughts ♡

I didn’t cook much this week…and I found myself not quite eating enough at dinner most nights, and although I didn’t cave, I was tempted to eat poorly because of this. It all circles back to lack of proper planning and preparation.

My husband, on the other hand, really has been eating well and eating most meals at home ever since I started this challenge. It makes me so happy to come home from work and see dirty dishes in the sink.

This week I have plans to make 돼지김치볶음 and 계란말이 and some kind of 파전 and 두부조림.  We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.


korean mom cooking, week 2

We have successfully completed week two of my Korean mom cooking challenge and it was fantastic. We started the week at my mother-in-law’s house, where we cooked most of our side dishes together. I hadn’t yet planned the dishes I was going to make, so it was really great to show up and just be thrown into the kitchen, where the dishes had already been determined and all I had to do was follow directions.

What we made this week:

♡ 닭죽
♡ 동그랑땡
♡ 배추 겉절이
♡ 오이무침
♡ baby bok choy

♡ Recipe sources♡ 

The majority of this week’s recipes came straight from the mind of my mother-in-law. She always likes to make 동그랑땡 when we’ve got extra people in the house because although it’s simple enough to make, it’s labor intensive.  Since my brother-in-law came up for the holiday weekend, she took advantage of the extra pair of hands to make this delicious dish. We made the bok choy and 닭죽 when we got home. My husband guided me through the 죽 making, and it turned out to be so delicious, we had to bring a bowl over to my mother-in-law to get her seal of approval.

♡ Favorite side dish ♡

동그랑땡 of course~~ but then, it’s always so delicious.  Impossible not to be yummy when you’ve got all hands on deck  preparing it.  The 오이무침 was a close second. A bit sweet for my taste but very refreshing for the summer.

♡ Additional Thoughts♡ 

Since the dishes were not made by me all by myself, I don’t really have much else to report. My mother-in-law cooks with a limited range of ingredients, using very  little salt or sugar, so the dishes were all healthy–no modifications or substitutions needed this week–and since mom’s cooking is so good, my husband of course loved them.

The 죽 was really simple to make, and tasted amazing. I searched the Internet for some easy recipes, and was on the verge of using all of the leftover rice in our rice cooker, when my husband jumped in and said no no no don’t do it like that you have to start with uncooked rice and offered to teach me. It was his first time making it, but he knew what to do as if he’d done it a thousand times. I don’t think I could say that about any recipe I grew up with. It’s amazing to me that he could be able to whip something up from scratch just like that from memory, without consulting his mom or checking a recipe.  After walking through it together like that, I do feel very confident that I’ll be able to make it myself next time, without a recipe in front of me. And so I’m considering this second week of Korean mom cooking a big win.



korean mom cooking, week 1

Last week I set a challenge for myself to cook like a Korean mom.  Here is how it went down.

What I made this week:

♡ 시금치나물
♡ 닭볶음탕
♡ asparagus
♡ 된장찌개 (without 호박 because I forgot to buy them oops)
♡ 감자전

♡ Recipe source♡ 

I used Maangchi for the 시금치나물, 닭볶음탕, and 감자전. The asparagus is a side dish I made up, simply stir frying with olive oil, garlic, and salt.

♡ Favorite side dish ♡

감자전!!! I was worried while preparing the “batter” that I was doing it wrong, and that that there wasn’t enough to hold the pancakes together because the recipe is literally just potato and Asian chives (I used 파) but once they got into the pan and started cooking, they were fine. They were more than fine. They were amazing. And now I can make them without a recipe. Easy peasy.

♡ Modifications I made ♡

I used two kiwifruits in place of the sugar in the recipe for 닭볶음탕.  I prefer to use fruit (and occasionally honey) in recipes that call for sugar, so I determined that two kiwis contained the same amount of sugar as the 1TBS of sugar called for in the recipe. It ended up being a bit sweet, and next time, I will probably use just one. Also we didn’t have enough 고춧가루 (we don’t use 고추장 anymore) so the dish wasn’t spicy enough for our liking.  I did end up using a big jalapeno to make up for some of the missing heat, but it’s not the same.

♡ Final Verdict ♡

As my husband told me it would, preparing food like a Korean mom really made my life easier by taking all of the guess work out of meals. The 반찬 were all super easy to make and very simple, so they ended up tasting clean and fresh for the whole week.  I especially liked that I could control the quality of every ingredient. My husband’s only complaint was that the 시금치나물 wasn’t salty enough, but I don’t like to use a lot of salt in my cooking, so it turned out just the way I intended.

As I had hoped, my he has now been eating more meals at home. It feels great to see him wake up in the morning and without hesitation pull all of the side dishes out of the refrigerator and tuck in to a healthy breakfast.

And just as he had promised it would, the meat dish has lasted throughout the week (I actually feel like I might have made too much), as it was just a compliment to the other 반찬 and not the main feature of the meal.  When I eat, it feels unnatural for me to favor one or two dishes, so I sample equally from all. This causes me to eat more slowly and carefully than before. After I finish eating, I feel full but never heavy. The food keeps me satiated, and I don’t really have cravings for desserts or snacks.  And, most importantly of all, my digestion is on point (you may think this is tmi, but this is a crucial part for me), thanks to the 현미 and all the veggies.

♡ Additional Thoughts ♡

Um guys, there are so many personal blogs on Naver with photo by photo recipes. Especially lots of blogs about preparing baby food. Lots of great resources out there for now and later wink wink. I just tried to find a few good ones to share, and spent all of an hour lost in pictures of delicious recipes.

What should I make next week?

cook like a korean mom

Over the past year, I have been trying to incorporate more Korean food into our diet.  I find that my husband will eat home cooked food more readily if it is Korean (“역시 한국 음식이 최고야~”) and we will both feel better after the meal. Our insides feel very comfortable, and we digest easily.

In the beginning, I was cooking things like 체육볶음 or 돼지길비찜 in a big pot and serving them up as the main course, with little to no 반찬s and sometimes no rice. Well, I actually did have some side dishes, but they were mostly raw veggies and I was pretty much the only one eating them. Because I was offering them as the main attraction of our meals, my husband blasted through these meat dishes, and started eating 컵라면 when we ran out of food (or bringing fried chicken home from the grocery store) and I started getting frustrated.

I’d spend my Sunday in the kitchen doing food prep that was meant to last a week, only to find the food gone by Wednesday. And we are only two right now. What happens when we have a baby? It all seemed so unsustainable.  So I asked my husband what to do…and he told me that for normal weekly meals, most of mom’s work goes into making 반찬.

If you search the tag #밑반찬 or #반찬만들기 you’ll  be able to get an idea of how it looks once it’s all prepared. From the research I did, it looks like most ladies are preparing 4-6 반찬 per week, with one meaty dish like 갈비 or curry or 닭볶음탕 or whatever.  According to my husband, mom makes all those things on the weekend, and serves them up for every meal throughout the week with rice, and then once or twice per week she whips up a simple stew or soup, which last a few days each.

It was like a light bulb appeared over my head and clicked on.

Put in the same amount of work on Sunday afternoon as I have already been doing, and cook a quick soup one or two days a week for a little variety. Since the meat isn’t a main course, but just an accompanying dish, it’s not the focus of the meal, and it will last the week. It’s so much easier than thinking up something new to serve for breakfast, lunch, and (especially) dinner every day. And as an added, added bonus, my husband will scarf up everything I eat happily, because it’s his food, and this kind of 집밥 is the best.